When Bend residents Peggy Sherrer and Anna Pollino boarded a high-speed train from Milan to Venice in May 2022, they sat near two Italians who wanted to chat but claimed they couldn’t speak English. For three hours, the Bend residents—both students at the Bend Language Institute (BLI)—spoke with the Italians without once lapsing into English. After exiting the train, Sherrer turned to Pollino and said, “I guess we’re fluent.” The two classmates had BLI, and its founder Christina Cappy, to thank.
Born in the United States to an Italian-American family, Cappy grew up in Florence, Italy. She attended an American university and earned a joint Ph.D. in anthropology and educational policy studies, doing research in South Africa, where she became fluent in Zulu. With family in Bend, she visited several times before making it her home. Fast forward to 2019 and Cappy decided to open a language institute—a model of learning popular elsewhere in the world but somewhat unusual in the United States. “Bend is becoming much more international,” Cappy said.
Through both private lessons and small classes, faculty at BLI teach Italian, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and American Sign Language and English as a Second Language. Bend Language Institute students range in age from teens to octogenarians, and they come from all backgrounds and for all reasons. For some, travel is the impetus. For others, it’s a requirement of their work. School-aged students take classes to advance in a curriculum, to speak with their non-English speaking grandparents, or simply because they are passionate about learning another language.
Each semester, about 150 students enroll at BLI in small classes or private lessons. Language acquisition happens many ways at BLI—film classes, book clubs, game nights and informal gatherings—and all activities are face-to-face.
“The point is interaction,” said Cappy. While online applications can be useful, “there’s nothing like a small class to practice speaking.” She said her older students can face different challenges when learning a language, not just because it is more difficult to develop a native-like accent after teenage years, “but adults allow their egos to get involved. To counteract that, I ask everyone in my classes to pretend as if they are in kindergarten,” she said.
The Bend Language Community and Commitment
Learning another language has endless benefits, attested Cappy, citing the research on enhanced brain health and community building.
To advance conversation skills, students are encouraged to talk about their backgrounds, families and friends. “There’s a vulnerability in sharing personal information with strangers,” she said. Friends are quickly made, and entire cohorts of students progress through the curriculum together.
The commitment to both language learning and their classmates means some students go to extraordinary ends. “One couple dressed up every anniversary in their wedding clothes. And so, when their Spanish class fell on their anniversary, they didn’t want to miss class and let their classmates down, so they came to class in a gown and tux,” Cappy recounted.
Silvi Galmozzi, a native of Argentina and an instructor in Spanish at BLI, began her career at BLI by “teaching under an apple tree in Christina’s backyard” during the first year of the pandemic. “We got very creative,” said Galmozzi. The “walk and talk” classes along the Deschutes River that sprung up during the pandemic continue today. She also runs a Spanish book club, a Spanish game night and a Spanish conversation group at BLI. “There’s a freedom we have here as students and faculty members,” said Galmozzi. See bendlanguageinstitute.com.